A still, small voice

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This year, during the Rosh Hashanah service, I was struck by the juxtaposition in the Unetanah Tokef: A great shofar is sounded; a still, small voice is heard.

So I looked at the text, the way I do. The great shofar being sounded is pretty clear: shofar gadol yitaka. On the other hand, the still, small voice is… interesting.

In 1 Kings 19:12, the Divine tells Elijah to go out onto the mountainside to see the passing of the Lord. There is a storm, but the Divine is not in the storm; there is an earthquake, but the Divine is not in the earthquake; there is a fire, but the Divine is not in the fire. And after the fire, there is a still, small sound—kol d’mamah dakah. This is the still, small sound that is paired with the great shofar in the prayer. Implicitly, it’s saying: the Divine is not in the shofar! That’s… interesting.

Now, looking at the actual words, I’m going to go out on a limb—this is pretty much indefensible exegesis, because my Hebrew grammar can’t sustain this sort of thing, but I’m going to do it anyway, because that’s me. Ready?

The thing I first noticed is that word that gets translated as ‘small’ is not katan, one of the first modifiers taught to children learning Hebrew. I learned it, in fact, as the opposite of gadol, in a song of opposites, such as you learn when you are attempting a second language. But, as I say, that’s not the word in the text. The word there is dakah, which derives from a verb for crushing or pulverizing. The kind of small that is ground to dust, not the kind of small that is inherent in the thing itself.

The word that gets translated as ‘still’ is d’mamah, a feminine form of d’mam, which means something closer to ‘silent’ that merely ‘still’. That’s worth noticing in itself—it’s not just a quiet voice that is heard, but a silent one. I would go further, though, and say that d’mam connotes not a silent thing, but a thing that has been silenced—the difference, say, between describing a person as ‘poor’ and ‘impoverished’, or between the terms ‘slave’ and ‘enslaved’. A silenced voice, not a silent voice.

Taking those together, the ‘still, small voice’ is not being described as inherently still and small: it is a voice that could perhaps be a great thundering voice, but has been stilled and, well, ensmallenned. And when the text says that it is heard, that of course is sh’ma—there have been millions of sermons about the Sh’ma and the difference between hearing and listening. I think this underlines my interpretation.

In all, then, I would translate kol d’mamah dakah yishama as something like the voice that has been crushed into silence is now listened to.

Whether you want to think of that as the Divine Voice that spoke to Elijah, or whether you want to think of that as your own internal voice—the call to t’shuvah, to return, has always been there. We crush it into silence in many ways over the course of the year, but still it speaks. We grind that voice into dust, but still it speaks. The fire does not consume it; the flood does not drown it.

There is a terrible, powerful tension in Unetanah Tokef: we dwell on how little we know about the upcoming year, the unguessable fates of every person. Who will be degraded, and who exalted; who by fire and who by flood; who will rest and who wander. This year, particularly, I have been feeling the helplessness of destiny—I can wear my own mask, and I can ask people to wear their masks, but I can’t by myself prevent the pandemic from spreading or even fully protect my loved ones from its effects. I can vote, and I can ask other people to vote, but I can’t by myself prevent authoritarianism from spreading or even fully protect my loved ones from its effects. I can stand against white supremacy, and I can ask other people to stand against white supremacy, but I can’t by myself prevent white supremacy from spreading or even fully protect my loved ones from its effects. But then, in the prayer, we say: Repentance, Prayer and Charity avert the severe decree. We can’t do much, but we can do… what we can do.

In that context, it struck a chord with me, today, to think of the ‘still, small voice’ as not being inherently still or small at all. If we can’t know our own fate, or control all the aspects of our lives we want to control, we can control this: we can listen to the voice that has been suppressed, whether that is the voice of the Divine Creator, or the voices of those crushed into silence by disease, oppression and injustice, or perhaps even the voice of my own soul.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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